On July 24, 2009, the St. Louis Cardinals sent Clayton Mortensen, Shane Peterson, and Brett Wallace to the Oakland Athletics. In return, they received outfielder Matt Holliday, who was set to become a free agent at the end of the season. On January 5, 2010, the Cardinals signed Holliday to a 7-year, $120 million contract a few days before his 30th birthday. At the time, this was the largest contract that the Cardinals had ever given out. This record was still standing when Holliday became a free agent after his option was declined at the conclusion of the 2016 season. While there is almost always a degree of skepticism associated with contracts as large as his, it is generally regarded as a success. During this 7-season stretch Holliday batted .288/.377/.469 with 143 HRs, a 139 wRC+ and 24.0 fWAR. He also received MVP votes in 4 seasons, was named an All-Star in 4 seasons, and won a Silver Slugger Award. Another way of looking at his overall value would be to divide the total contract amount by fWAR to get $5 million per win. While this is an imperfect measurement, the current average in free agent contracts is about $8 million per win. In any case, looking back after the 2016 season would have painted the Holliday contract in a positive light. With him off the payroll, the Cardinals soon began to secure some new long-term plans.
Since Holliday’s departure, the Cardinals have given out 11 contracts that both bought out free agent years and paid a total of more than $10 million guaranteed during free agent seasons. They are listed below. (Seasons that have not yet been played and prorated 2020 salaries are accounted for in the calculation of $/win)
30 years old, 4y/$30.5M, 100.0 IP, 4.86 ERA, 4.25 FIP, 1.470 WHIP, 0.4 fWAR, $72.25 million/win
Cecil was signed soon after the end of the 2016 season as a middle reliever. While his 2017 season was not completely ineffective, he often struggled in high leverage situations. In 2018 he struggled much more and was rarely given opportunities in close games. He missed the entire 2019 season due to injury and was designated for assignment before the 2020 season. While WAR is not the best measurement for pitchers, especially relief pitchers, it does not favor Cecil’s contract. Most other stats agree.
31 years old, 5y/$82M, 1500 PA, .233/.334/.408, 49 HR, 100 wRC+, 3.0 fWAR, $18.96 million/win
Fowler had a decent season in 2017, setting career highs in home runs and slugging percentage. In 2019, however, he set career lows in batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage and had his season cut short due to injury. In 2019 he came back and again set a career high in home runs in an otherwise average season. His 2020 season was interrupted due to COVID-19 precautions but was below average while he was on the field. 2021 will be his final season under his current contract. Overall, he has stayed above replacement level, but has not reached the value of his contract.
24 years old, 5y/$51M, 392.0 IP, 3.74 ERA, 3.82 FIP, 1.296 WHIP, 6.3 fWAR, $5 million/win
Martinez signed a long-term extension prior to the 2017 season that bought out his arbitration years and some free agent years. His numbers are a bit difficult to analyze because after pitching over 200 innings as a starter in his All-Star 2017 season he suffered injuries that forced him into the bullpen beginning in early 2018. His 2018 and 2019 seasons as a reliever were relatively good, and he made his way back into the rotation in 2020. An extended battle with COVID-19 early in the season kept him off the field for much of the year, and he only made 4 additional starts where he struggled to suppress home runs and make it deep into games. Martinez’s last full season as a starter makes this contract look better cumulatively, but his extended role in the bullpen has limited his opportunities and made his contract less favorable as time goes on. He has one more season under contract and a team option the following year.
35 years old, 3y/$60M, 1111 PA, .265/.312/.410, 34 HR, 94 wRC+, 4.1 fWAR, $11.56 million/win
Molina signed his extension prior to the 2017 season. It came into effect beginning in 2018. He was the everyday catcher for the duration of his contract. Despite missing time due to injury or COVID-19 in each of the three seasons, he had the 3rd most innings caught in the majors during that stretch. He hit the 2nd most home runs of his career and was named an All-Star in 2018, but his power and on base percentage began to fall after that and he began to rely on his defense to remain above replacement level more than before. On paper these numbers are below average, however, for a 38-year-old defense-first catcher who never takes a day off they are probably in line with what the organization expected. Somehow, Molina’s knees remain intact and he is currently a free agent.
29 years old, 2y/$15.5M, 384.2 IP, 3.46 ERA, 3.76 FIP, 1.144 WHIP, 6.7 fWAR, $2.31 million/win
Mikolas was relatively unknown when the Cardinals signed him out of Japan before the 2018 season. In his first year back in the majors he quickly became one of the team’s best starters, earning an All-Star game nod and finishing 6th in NL Cy Young voting. He did not perform as well the next season but was still a decent member of the rotation. Mikolas easily surpassed the value of his contract after one season and earned an extension, making him the only Cardinals player to receive two contracts in excess of $10 million in the past 4 years.
33 years old, 2y/$11M, 18.1 IP, 7.36 ERA, 4.21 FIP, 1.745 WHIP, 0.0 fWAR, undefined $/win
Gregerson was signed as a middle reliever before the 2018 season. Injuries limited him throughout the duration of his contract, and he was designated for assignment early in the 2019 season. He was unable to perform above replacement level during his time in St. Louis.
32 years old, 1y/$14M, 25.0 IP, 7.92 ERA, 4.56 FIP, 2.240 WHIP, 0.0 fWAR, undefined $/win
Holland and his agent Scott Boras had extensive negotiations with the Cardinals that finally concluded when the Cardinals agreed to his price and he signed on 2018 opening day. After a brief MiLB stint he was placed on the major league roster. He struggled for a few months until he was ultimately designated for assignment. Holland was unable to perform above replacement level for the Cardinals. A week after his release he signed a league minimum contract with the Washington Nationals where he had a 0.84 ERA and 0.891 WHIP during the remainder of the season. In one game, he faced St. Louis where he pitched 2 hitless innings and recorded a win. Some theorize that Holland’s struggles were due to his lack of spring training. Some theorize that life is not fair. Evidence that refutes either claim is scarce.
33 years old, 2y/$25M, 67.2 IP, 4.12 ERA, 4.69 FIP, 1.271 WHIP, -0.1 fWAR, undefined $/win
Miller signed with the Cardinals prior to the 2019 season. He struggled that year but made improvements in 2020 where he pitched enough for his 2021 option to vest. However, due in part to his better season being shorter, his overall value was below replacement level.
31 years old, 4y/$68M
Mikolas signed an extension before the 2019 season that was set to begin a year later. He missed the entire 2020 season, so he has yet to play under his new contract.
32 years old, 5y/$130M, 231 PA, .304/.417/.466, 6 HR, 146 wRC+, 2.1 fWAR, $5.78 million/win
Goldschmidt was the first, and currently the only player to receive a larger contract from the Cardinals than Matt Holliday. He has yet to play a full season under the new contract, as it did not begin until the 2020 season. While a shortened season is not the best indication of what is to come, his plate discipline and overall offense were on par with his career averages. After 1 year his value has seemingly matched his contract, which lasts for 4 more seasons.
34 years old, 2y/$39M, 169 PA, .186/.325/.314, 4 HR, 84 wRC+, 0.3 fWAR, $22.84 million/win
Carpenter would have reached free agency after the 2019 season if his option would have been declined, but he instead signed an extension during the spring that began a year later at the beginning of 2020, his age 34 season. His only year under his current contract so far is 2020, where he set career lows in nearly every offensive category and had a very noticeable lack of power compared to previous seasons. Overall, Carpenter has not performed near his norm under this contract and will have an uphill battle to change this as he enters his age 35 season in 2021, the last year if his option does not vest (must reach 550 PA in 2021 for option to vest).
Some players were not mentioned due to the nature of their contracts. Stephen Piscotty and Paul DeJong both signed extensions that bought out a single free agent year, but since their contracts had an AAV below $10 million they were not included. Adam Wainwright earned $10 million in 2019, but only $2 million was guaranteed and the remainder was from performance related incentives so he was not included either. Between the aforementioned 11 contracts, some are still in effect making it difficult to draw a definitive conclusion. Although there have been a few that have worked out well for the Cardinals so far, many of which involved younger players. However, the majority were not as effective as the organization and fans would have hoped. This is especially true when compared to some of the higher paid players from previous years.
In 2019, their most recent 162 game season, the Cardinals had a payroll of $163 million. This was the 6th highest in the league. 2004 and 2013 were arguably two of the best Cardinals years since expansion. In both seasons they had the best record in MLB and reached the World Series. In 2013 the Cardinals had a payroll of $117 million, the 11th highest in the league. In 2004 they had a payroll of $83 million, the 9th highest in the league. While the Cardinals did have a relatively successful season in 2019, it did not go nearly as well as 2004 or 2013, especially in terms of offensive production. Considering the lower payrolls in those two seasons, this suggests the money may not have been spent as effectively in 2019. In 2004, the 3 highest paid players were Matt Morris ($12.5M), Jim Edmonds ($9.33M), and Scott Rolen ($8.63M). Morris led the team in innings pitched with 202.0 and recorded a 4.72 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, and 1.1 fWAR. Edmonds finished with 168 wRC+ and 8.3 fWAR, both 2nd best on the team. Rolen finished with 159 wRC+ and 9.0 fWAR, 3rd and 1st best on the team, respectively. Both Edmonds and Rolen finished top 5 in baseball in fWAR as well as top 5 in NL MVP voting. The 3 of them combined for 18.4 fWAR. In 2013 the 3 highest paid players were Matt Holliday ($17M), Yadier Molina ($14M), and Carlos Beltran ($13M). Holliday’s 147 wRC+ led the team and his 4.0 fWAR was 3rd best. He also finished 23rd in NL MVP voting. Molina had a wRC+ of 133, a team leading 7.8 fWAR good for 4th best in baseball, and a 3rd place finish in NL MVP voting. Beltran had a wRC+ of 131 and 2.7 fWAR. The total between the three was 14.5 fWAR. The 3 highest paid players during the 2019 season were Yadier Molina ($20M), Dexter Fowler ($16.5M), and Matt Carpenter ($14.75M). Molina had 87 wRC+ and 1.2 fWAR. Fowler had 103 wRC+ and 1.5 fWAR. Carpenter had 95 wRC+ and 1.2 fWAR. Between the 3 of them they had 3.9 fWAR and individually they ranked 9th, 7th, and 8th among position players on the team, respectively. Clearly, this is significantly less production than the highest paid players from 2004 and 2013. Another noticeable difference between these three groups of players are their ages. In 2004 Matt Morris was 29, Jim Edmonds was 34, and Scott Rolen was 29. In 2013 Matt Holliday was 33, Yadier Molina was 30, and Carlos Beltran was 36. In 2019, Yadier Molina was 36, Dexter Fowler was 33, and Matt Carpenter was 33. Not only were the highest paid players in 2019 older than they were in the previous years, but they had also been older than usual when they signed the contracts. Carpenter is the only one in 2019 who was not older than 30 when his extension began. Beltran was the only one in 2013 who was older than 30 at the beginning of his. None of the 3 were older than 30 in 2004. Despite the lower performance from the higher paid players, one thing that has remained fairly stable is the production from younger players.
In recent years, the Cardinals have given more and more opportunities to younger position players. In 2004 there were 4 hitters with 100 PAs who were 28 or younger. They were Albert Pujols, Edgar Renteria, Yadier Molina, and Hector Luna who combined for 10.3 fWAR. In 2013 there were 8 such players. Matt Carpenter, Allen Craig, Jon Jay, Matt Adams, Shane Robinson, Pete Kozma, Daniel Descalso, and Tony Cruz combined for 14 fWAR. Lastly, in 2019 the 7 batters who met these criteria were Paul DeJong, Kolten Wong, Tommy Edman, Marcell Ozuna, Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, and Yairo Munoz. They accumulated 15.1 fWAR. Despite the offensive struggles for St. Louis in 2019, the younger players still did their part as they had before. 2004 and 2013 did include MVP caliber campaigns from Pujols and Carpenter but not as much outside of that. On the other hand, the 2019 team had multiple above average players who produced collectively.
In the past, the Cardinals have gotten a lot of value from their large contracts. Jim Edmonds may be inducted into the Hall of Fame via veterans committee in the future. Scott Rolen’s support from the BBWAA has been growing each year and he may be inducted relatively soon. Albert Pujols will certainly make it during his first year of eligibility. Matt Holliday was consistently one of the best players on the team during his contract. One notable similarity between these players is they were all 30 or younger when they signed their contracts. There is still a good chance that Paul Goldschmidt will be held in high regard along with these other hitters after his contract ends, but most of the other large signings of players older than 30 in recent years have not gone as well so far. Due to the nature of arbitration, it is somewhat rare when players become available much earlier than that, however, some of the players that were acquired had been free agents already, so there have been younger options. The Cardinals exact motive will likely never be public knowledge, but it’s possible they may be more interested in veteran players for their experience. In any case, the large contracts with younger players have a better track record for the team in recent history and all else being equal have made them better than the alternative. The bottom line is that while the Cardinals may be willing to spend, they have often failed to capitalize and have used their payroll less effectively than they could have.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.
Featured Photo: Cardinals / Twitter